Imagine not having a word for “yellow” or “beige” or “orange.” For many years, English got by with a lot fewer words for color than we have today.
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Colors are such fundamental, tangible things that it’s hard to imagine not having names for them, but the number of words for colors varies widely by language and for many, many years, English got by without a lot of the color names we take for granted today.
In nearly all languages, the first colors to get names are black and white.
“Black” comes from very old words that meant “to burn” or “burned.” But the same old words also gave us “blake,” which is a now obscure word that meant pale, pallid, and ashen. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is often difficult to tell which of these two colors is meant in Old English texts when the context doesn’t make it clear. And to make it even more complicated, at some point, “black” could also be used to describe something bright, shining, or glittering, perhaps related to the idea that something that is burning is all those things. So it took “black” a while to be limited to what we think of as black today.
“White” is a little more straightforward. In Old English, it meant “bright and radiant, or clear and fair.” It could be describing something we think of as white such as snow, milk, or an old person’s hair, but it could also describe something transparent, or something light yellow, pale gray, or silver. Online Etymology Dictionary says “White” is also one of the oldest surnames in English, originally referring to people with fair hair or a fair complexion.
There are still languages today that have just two words for colors that are essentially white for all light or warm colors and black for all dark or cool colors.
That surprised me, but one thing that surprised me most was that the next color almost all languages name is red—one theory is that it’s because it is the color of blood.
Although black, white, and red all likely go back to the prehistoric language Proto-Indo-European (PIE), Online Etymology Dictionary states that red is “the only color for which a definite common PIE root word has been found.”
Red shows up in a lot of place names where it referred to the color of natural elements such as rocks and soil. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary lists Radcliffe, Radclive, Redmile, Redford, and Rattery, all from 1086, and slightly later Radly and Redhill. The same root for “red” also likely gave us the word for the color “rust.”
In those early days though, “red” was probably the name for the color rust, as well as purple, pink, and orange.
In fact, we call people redheads instead of orangeheads because at the time we started calling them anything, the word “orange” hadn’t entered the language as a color word, and the word “red” included the orangey color of red hair.
Interestingly, the Irish writer Stan Carey told me that the Irish word for red hair is different from the general Irish word for red.
After red, most languages add a word for either yellow or a spectrum that includes both green and blue that language experts sometimes call “grue.” Since blue and green are so prevalent in nature, I would have expected one of them to be the third word more languages would add, but I was wrong!
You can think of these as the five base colors that most languages have: black, white, red, yellow, and green/blue. And English today is described as having 11 main color words: those five base colors (black, white, red, yellow, and green/blue) plus brown, orange, pink, purple and gray, but some languages have more or different words. For example, Russian, Greek, and Turkish have separate words for light blue and dark blue.
Gray, Brown, and Orange
Gray and brown are both very old words that go back to Old English, and orange came from the color of the fruit after oranges were introduced to Europe, around the mid-1500s.
Purple was originally a shade of crimson “obtained from mollusc dye” and associated with people of importance such as emperors, kings, cardinals, and so on. It came to describe many colors in the spectrum between red and violet. The color we think of as purple today was first called purple in the 1400s.
Pink is especially interesting. According to the OED, “pink” originally referred to “a greenish-yellow lake pigment made by combining a vegetable coloring matter with a white base such as a metallic oxide.” It seems like that first “pink” was more of a description of the process than the color, since the OED notes there were colors such as green pink, brown pink, rose pink, and pink yellow. The origin of the word is unknown, but in the 1600s, the word “pink” also started being used to mean the light red color we think of today. The origin of the greenish-yellow pink and the light red pink are both listed as unknown, and it’s unclear to me whether etymologists think they are related, but I think not.
This second pink—the one we think of today—probably comes from the color of the flower Dianthus, but the flower probably got its name from the spiky, scalloped shape of its petals because if you’ve ever used pinking shears, you know that “pink” has another meaning: to cut a scalloped or zigzag edge on fabric. Earlier, it also meant to punch holes or slits into fabric. So the “cut fabric” meaning of pink came first, the flower Dianthus was called a pink because of the shape of its petals, and then we got the color pink from the color of the Dianthus flowers.
But English also had a different word to describe the color pink before we started using “pink.” In the 1500s and into following centuries you could use the word “incarnate,” which comes from the Latin word for “flesh.” It doesn’t look like it was used alone the way we use colors alone today, as in “That flower is pink.” Still, you could describe something as “an incarnate color,” meaning a pink or fleshy color, or say you picked “incarnate clovers,” meaning pink clovers.
Colors from Nature
Colors continued to come from nature through the 1700s. For example, ultramarine, a blue color, comes from Latin that means “beyond the sea,” probably because the color originally came from a blue pigment from the mineral lapis lazuli which came from Asia.
The late 1700s gave us “maroon,” from the French word for the color of a chestnut, and “puce,” from the French word for flea or the color of a flea (yes, the insect).
Colors After Chemical Dyes
Advances in chemistry in the mid-1800s that allowed manufacturers to make synthetic dyes led to an explosion of new colors, and the fashion industry in particular embraced the ability to add novelty to its products and drove the adoption of many new color words. According to a book called “Bright Modernity: Color, Commerce, and Consumer Culture”:
“Women’s magazines disseminated the names of new colors and sometimes their origins. Acquiring this knowledge was part of keeping up with fashion for the middle-class female consumer.”
Many of these new color words came from French. Some of the colors this new era gave us include the following:
- Mauve: The French word for the color of the mallow plant’s flower
- Ecru: From the French word for “raw or unbleached” because it is the color of unbleached linen
- Beige: From the French word to describe the color of undyed, unbleached wool
- Burgundy: Referring to the color of wine through the Burgundy region in France
- Turquoise: From the Old French word for “Turkish” because the turquoise-colored stone was originally imported from the Turkish region
The mid-1800s also gave us “aquamarine,” which comes from Latin and means “sea-water,” and “khaki,” which comes from the Urdu word for “dusty.”
Tangerine, the fruit, got its name in the mid-1800s because that particular type of orange was imported from Tangier, and it started being used as a color word in 1899.
There are so many more interesting color words, and I just learned that Kory Stamper from Merriam-Webster is writing an entire book about color words, but I’ll end with the two words that got me started on this grand expedition into color words in the first place: magenta and solferino.
Magenta was originally patented in 1859 by a French chemist and called “fuchsine,” after the fuchsia flower, but soon thereafter was changed to honor a French military victory over the Austrians near the northern Italian town of Magenta. And solferino is a bright crimson purplish red or purplish pink (sources disagree) named around the same time as magenta after a village in northern Italy, again because of a battle that took place in the region.
Solferino also appears to be a coloring that can be added to liquor, at least it was in 1866 when it was used as a tincture that was mentioned alongside caramel and turmeric in the book The Independent Liquorist. The author described solferino as “The handsomest, as well as the most powerful color known to the trade.”
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